Terrafugia Unveils New TF-X Project, Talks Future of Flying Cars

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built yet, but the vehicle concept includes a roomier interior than Transition (which only seats two), and a pretty striking liftoff and landing mechanism.

Like Transition, the TF-X will have normal-looking wings, but on the end of each wing will be a motorized pod that contains a helicopter-like propeller (see images below). The propellers will be activated on take-off and landing, but will be folded away at cruising speed.

Another big difference with the TF-X is that takeoff, landing, and driving on the ground will use an electric propulsion system, while long-range flying will use a gas turbine. Dietrich isn’t giving any numbers, but he says the new vehicle will be “significantly faster” in the air than Transition, and it will also be a lot heavier. (I’m guessing they’re shooting for over 200 mph in the air, faster than most helicopters.)

And about that vertical liftoff: you probably won’t be taking off from your driveway, or landing at the office. The vehicle will need a roughly 100-foot diameter of open space to take off. But that’s still more convenient than finding a runway.

Not surprisingly, plenty of companies around the world are working on vehicles with similar capabilities. Pipistrel, a light aircraft manufacturer in Slovenia, just unveiled a concept design for an electrically powered vertical-takeoff craft with eight propellers on two wings. AgustaWestland, a U.K.-based company, recently demonstrated an electric tilt-rotor aircraft called “Project Zero,” which has two large adjustable propellers embedded in its wings. And, perhaps most intriguing, Silicon Valley stealth startup Zee.Aero has a new patent for a “personal aircraft” that has vertical-lift rotors, tandem wings, and forward-thrust propellers. (There are some crazy rumors about who’s behind this company, but they are unsubstantiated.)

In any case, Terrafugia’s TF-X would be the only personal aircraft I’m aware of that could be drivable on roads. That also means in bad weather, when it’s dangerous to fly, Terrafugia’s vehicle gives its pilot the option to drive on the ground.

“As these vehicles get out there, it’s likely there will wind up being more and more little takeoff and landing zones,” Dietrich says. If all goes well and this sort of personal aviation becomes commonplace—a huge if, indeed—city parks, fields, and parking lots might set aside space for it, he says. (Imagine landing in Boston Common, folding up your wings, and parking in the garage underground.)

Listening to Dietrich, you start to realize the full scope of Terrafugia’s vision—but also the magnitude of its challenges.

Which brings us to the self-flying part. One of the main reasons Dietrich decided to pursue the TF-X project in the first place was the regulatory environment. In early 2012, Congress passed the FAA Reauthorization and Reform Act, which (among other things) gives the Federal Aviation Administration a green light to invest in new technologies, including next-generation air traffic control systems. One of the mandates, according to Dietrich: by 2020, all aircraft will be required to broadcast their GPS position and velocity to all other craft.

“I thought, ‘Holy cow, this infrastructure is really going to be there,’” he says. “This really does enable a semi-autonomous system to guide you where you need to go. The computer will have all that information that you don’t have [now] in the cockpit.”

So it sounds like the self-flying part of the vision is largely a software problem—albeit a big one. To sell it to the FAA, though, Terrafugia will need to position the technology as not just safe, but a way to improve upon current safety standards for light aircraft. (Autonomous military drones are one thing; personal aviation is another.)

That’s much easier said than done. … Next Page »

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Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and Editor of Xconomy Boston. E-mail him at gthuang [at] xconomy.com. Follow @gthuang

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